Samuel Adams and the World’s First Whiskey Barrel Aged Beer

I was chatting with Samuel Adams founder Jim Koch not to long ago for a Today Show piece I was writing (double name-drop in a single sentence – woot!).

Jim likes to talk, as do I, and our conversation wandered away from topic at hand and into some of the innovations he and his brewers have brought into the craft beer scene.  Among them was something I didn’t expect – the creation of the first-ever beer aged in a used spirits barrel.

He recalled a time about 20 years ago, when he was shopping at the Home Depot and saw used Jack Daniels Whiskey barrels being sold as planters.  Jim had been contemplating making a barrel-aged brew, but the costs were prohibitive. New barrels ran upwards of $400 a pop, which added roughly one dollar to every 12-ounce bottle of beer produced.

But the used barrels at the Home Depot were far cheaper, which gave him an idea. 

Jim contacted Jack Daniels, who were happy to give him all the barrels he wanted for $25 each – the shipping costs were more than the vessels themselves.  Suddenly barrel aging made financial sense and the rest is history.

Jim claims that his brewery was the first to age a beer in any kind of spirits barrel (be it whiskey, whisky, Bourbon or rum), something that legendary beer scribe Michael Jackson mostly agreed with at the time, telling Jim that he had heard whispers of a brewery in Northern Scotland doing such a thing before, but he wasn’t sure.  Michael drank a lot of beer.

A little research will show that Goose Island has laid claim to the title of “first Bourbon barrel aged beer,” with the creation of Bourbon County Stout in 1992, which argues against Mr. Koch’s story.  I don’t know who really came first, I’m simply reporting what I was told from a very reliable source.

What’s more striking to me is that professionally brewed Bourbon or whiskey aged beers have only been with us for 20 years.  Much like the time when that absent-minded guy with the chocolate bar first bumped into that fella holding the peanut butter, I thought this wonderful marriage of flavors went back much, much further than when Tom Hanks first yelled, “There’s no crying in baseball!” and Roseanne ruled the airwaves.

Having histories as long and intertwined as these two noteworthy beverages do, it’s a travesty that whiskey aging didn’t happen far sooner.  I think, as a species, we need to take a hard look in the mirror and ask ourselves: what took so long, humans? Seriously, we figured out cell phones before booze-aged beers?  Where’s the priorities?!



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Categories: Beer, News


Craft beer nerd, frequent beer blogger and occasional home brewer.

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13 Comments on “Samuel Adams and the World’s First Whiskey Barrel Aged Beer”

  1. Brett
    November 9, 2012 at 2:41 pm #

    Jim Koch seems like a genuinely awesome guy. In my mind, Sam Adams is the Beatles of beer – you may not earn craft-beer-hipster-cred by singing their praises, but they really created the awareness and marketplace for craft beer in America, and they still continue to put out really cool new brews, instead of just coasting on their proven flagship beer.

    • November 9, 2012 at 3:52 pm #

      I just hope they don’t break up and avoid the stoop of the Dakota…

  2. November 9, 2012 at 2:44 pm #

    Booze-barrel-aged isn’t really a style, but if it was, it would surely be my favorite. Whiskey, bourbon, cognac, port, wine, anejo tequila. If it used to be in a barrel and it was boozy, put some beer in it and let the magic happen. Mmmm.

    • November 9, 2012 at 3:52 pm #

      It’s a style in my mind: “Barrel Aged” ANYTHING – Gold Medal!!

      • John
        November 13, 2012 at 3:31 pm #

        Magic time INDEED!

  3. Diss Content
    November 9, 2012 at 3:48 pm #

    I believe the process of barrel ageing, like most great inventions, was an accident.

    The more I learn about how these ‘old timers’ managed to preserve things without refrigeration or understanding the chemistry, the more I’m impressed. I thought there was some surplus Yankee whiskey which was unintentionally stored longer, and when tapped, proved to have a superior flavor. This could be lore.

    At the time, barrels were simply the standard container for several products. Now that we have nuclear power, miracle drugs and smart phones to make us feel superior and awesome; the technology of the barrel has remained the same. There still isn’t a machine, software package or replacement for barrel manufacture other than a great deal of human labor, and skill. Resulting in a $400 price tag.

    Some things were simply invented right the first time, like barrels, beer and boobs. Now if what Darwin said is true….. then it is just a matter of time… till boobs begin producing beer. Come on evolution! Help a brother out.

    That’s not to say I’m not endlessly fascinated with the original design.

    • November 9, 2012 at 3:54 pm #

      I’m okay with the origina, too, but drunken babies are HILARIOUS! C’mon, evolution – get to it!!

    • November 9, 2012 at 4:21 pm #

      Hear, Hear! But how ’bout beer dispensing boobs aged in whiskey barrels? (BTW: I think I see a theme for a new line of pour handles here., LOL.)

      • November 9, 2012 at 4:32 pm #

        Bourbon aged boobs, eh? I like it!

        On Fri, Nov 9, 2012 at 4:21 PM, Beer & Whiskey Bros.

  4. November 16, 2012 at 11:56 am #

    I’m not big on “barrel aged” for one reason: very few actually get it right (IMHO). Most of the time the result is a beer that is bright and boozy, which is not something I want in a beer. Further, many of them are off-balance from a beer profile standpoint to begin with, in anticipation of what the barrel will bring to them. Finally, quite a few I’ve chosen to age for a few years (because of the initial brightness) did not age well at all. One brand That always gets it right, again in my opinion, is J.W. Lee’s. Their Harvest Ales aged in various casks are always a delight, and are made to further age (and they do so beautifully).

    • November 16, 2012 at 11:59 am #

      I’m crazy for bourbon-aged beers of all sorts. I’d drink Bud Light if it spent time in a barrel and probably like it. Actually, I’ll find out this weekend as AB sent me samples of their “craft” line of Budweisers. Yikes.

      Also, J.W. Lees is excellent, every kind I’ve tried. I just wish they weren’t so pricey.

      On Fri, Nov 16, 2012 at 11:56 AM, Beer & Whiskey Bros.

  5. Leighton
    November 18, 2012 at 7:33 pm #

    I’ve found that personally the range of brews from Innis & Gunn are pleasant.

  6. dennis
    December 7, 2012 at 4:54 pm #

    need to try Rahr’s barrel-aged Winter Warmer from down here in Fort Worth. mighty tasty!

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